Ghana: talented players as far as the eye can see
Twice U-17 World Champions, twice U-17 runners-up - Ghana is the top favourite in this category at the FIFA World Championship which will take place from 10 to 27 November in New Zealand. Ghana is teeming with talented players who dream of an illustrious career. Midfielder Abedi Pelé (35) and central defender Samuel Kuffour (23) have become top stars - but not only because of their footballing qualities.
Samuel Kuffour sits in the restaurant at Bayern Munich's training complex, and smiles: "My dream has come true." The 23-year-old has been with Bayern for six years, the club that has won a record number of German championships. "I am with one of the world's best clubs, and that makes me very proud," he says. "The risk I took as a youngster has paid off." Kuffour grew up in Kumasi, the second largest city in the west African state of Ghana. At 13 years of age he left school with the aim of becoming a professional footballer and to play in one of Europe's top leagues. Kuffour staked all on one throw - and won.
Kuffour: "My three sisters were mad at me for breaking off my education." He did not do this voluntarily, though. There was very little money available in the Kuffour household despite the fact that Samuel's father, who worked at Toronto airport in Canada, regularly sent dollars home to his family. "But in the end my parents were unable to pay for my schooling," Kuffour says, who was also working in a shoe factory at the time. So, Kuffour did what thousands of youngsters resort to in Ghana: he subordinated everything to football. He joined a small club and not long afterwards he was spotted by scouts. A meteoric rise then followed: in 1991, at the tender age of 14(!) he won the U-17 World Championship with Ghana, changed clubs a year later by signing on for the Italian club AC Torino, reached the final of the U-17 World Championship in 1993 when playing in this tournament for the second time, and in the same year made his debut in the senior national team at 16 years of age.
Nowadays, Kuffour is one of the world's best defenders. He has attained wealth and respect in his home country and has become the idol of thousands and thousands of youngsters. Kuffour: "It's wonderful to be successful and popular."
Countless young lads in Ghana dream of such worldwide fame, though in fact only a few make it to the top. Basically however, many enthusiastic youngsters do indeed possess the necessary foot-balling potential which would enable them to embark on a star-studded career, because hardly a country exists that is so successful as Ghana in the junior sphere. Ghana has been in the final of the last four U-17 world championships: two victories and two losses being the tally to date.
"The Colts" as a talent show
"There is a huge reservoir of talent in my country. Ten year-olds can already do everything with the ball," says Abedi Pelé, arguably the best player Africa has ever produced. The 35 year-old player, who is currently under contract in the United Arab Emirates, has an explanation for this: "Ghana is a poor country. Youngsters there have football and not much more. As a consequence, these lads are hungry and motivated, they want to concentrate all their energy on getting to the top. There is only one avenue open for a poor person in Ghana to establish a career and make money: be a good footballer and go to Europe."
Abedi Pelé was blessed with this good fortune. He played for a number of European clubs and won the Champions League with Olympique Marseille. The foundation for his fabulous career was laid with "The Colts", the youth team which is the main reason for Ghana's superiority at junior level. "The Colts" system is played in every region of the country. Around 100 teams take part, involving players who are 13 years of age or more. The strongest teams play in a final tournament at the national stadium in the capital of Accra, and it is there that the most outstanding talents are selected. Afterwards, they make up the new national youth teams. Later, these new national teams are drawn together in training camps and matches throughout the country in order to encourage practical understanding among the players. More-over, the players receive regular schooling, which Abedi Pelé also considers absolutely necessary. He believes it is wrong that many families make football top priority for their sons to the detriment of education: "First and foremost one should try to fashion a good, intelligent person, and only afterwards a good footballer." But Abedi Pelé knows that more often than not this is wishful thinking in Ghana. For so many families a football-playing son is the only hope of escaping the clutches of poverty. If the youngster is spotted by European scouts and is contracted to a financially-strong club, then in most cases the family has nothing more to worry about. The son, in turn, then supports his parents, brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and it is well known that African footballers in Europe - among whom are the Ghanaians - ensure that more than half of their salary is transferred back home.
It is the dream of every footballer in Ghana to move to Europe, not in the least because of financial considerations. In their book "Football Africa", the co-authors Marc Broere and Roy van der Drift mention the Ghanaian player Robert Ayensu, who by his own admission was earning the equivalent of 33 US dollars a month as a professional in his country's league, a salary which not long after jumped to 1350 US dollars when he signed on for a fourth-class German club. Ayensu is by no means an isolated case, and he too went to Europe as a youngster.
Numerous European clubs have their scouts located permanently in Ghana, where they keep a sharp lookout for fast and skilful lads. It is not uncommon for a club to contract players for very little money already at 14, 15 or 16 years of age. This makes Charles Gyamfi, the "grand old man" of Ghanian football and former coach of the national team, hopping mad: "It is a form of slavery. The transfer of 15 and 16 year-olds to Europe should be forbidden."
Abedi Pelé is also of the same opinion: "Our government should intervene in order to stop such player transfers. We Ghanaians are people who enjoy very strong family ties, and a 15 or 16 year-old needs his family more than anything else at that age. If a young player who is known here moves to Europe, he is unknown there and often all alone. This can have an extremely negative effect on his development both as a footballer and as a human being." Kuffour left Ghana when he was 15 years old. Today he says he is not sure if he would make the same move again: "Initially in Europe I was often lonely, bored, frustrated and thus homesick. It was a hard time for me. On the other hand I became independent and self-supporting at a very early age."
Nowadays, dozens of Ghanaians play abroad, but only a few are able to catapult themselves to the status of superstar. Apart from Anthony Yeboah and Kuffour there is also Abedi Pelé, of course. "If we want to achieve something on the world football stage, then playing in a top European league is an absolute must," says Abedi Pelé. "And it isn't only just foot-balling qualities one needs in order make a breakthrough there. One must be prepared to devote everything to shaping a good career. A lot is also played out in the head, mental toughness is required. Wonderful dribbling alone won't make for a star."
Ghana - one huge celebration
Whereas Ghana dominates at the youth level and has been declared one of the top favourites for the U-17 World Championship which will take place in New Zealand from 10 to 27 November, the senior national team has never qualified for a World Cup. In the past Ghana has often played attractive yet ultimately unsuccessful football, according to Abedi Pelé, who announced in 1998 that his career in the national team was over. Furthermore, the team was too old. Now, however, the national team can count on a crop of good young players who are gaining important international experience with European clubs.
In addition, Abedi Pelé emphasises that in recent years there has been a marked improvement in the structures of Ghanian football: "It won't be long before Ghana is present at a full World Cup." Indeed, Kuffour is convinced that Ghana will be playing in 2002 in Korea/Japan. The defender even goes one step further: "It won't be long before an African team wins the World Cup. Nigeria has the potential, but so too does Ghana."
In the meantime, however, Ghana wants to become world champion for the third time in the U-17 category. Should the players pull this off in November in New Zealand, then the top European clubs will be clamouring for them. And at home huge parties will be organised along the scale of 1991. It was then that Ghana won the U-17 World Championship for the first time, in Italy. Following the victorious final, the whole nation fell into a state of delirium. President Jerry John Rawlings, who was hosting 84 foreign ministers from the non-aligned countries, called off all meetings and decreed two days' national holiday. When the heroes finally landed at Accra airport, a million fans were there waiting for them. Kuffour recalls that "people were so over-joyed they very nearly crushed us to death."
The same fate could well be awaiting Ghana's U-17 team at the end of November... awe